There is a distinct musty, old-world charm about the room. The windows, the doors, and the moldy walls remind of a quaint world, of a timeless Bengal. This is exactly true of the occupant of the room as well.
His working table lies in a mess, stuffed with various drawing material: bottles of black ink, a few brushes, and a dusty old drawing board. Clad in his typical Bengali traditional attire of dhoti and lungi, Narayan Debnath might be in his nineties but his love for drawing comic strips remains as intense as ever.
Renowned all over Bengal as the icon of Bengali comics, Debnath is the creator of celebrated comic characters like Nonte Phonte, Handa-Bhonda, and Batul the Great, among a host of others. For generations of children in Bengal, Debnath’s works have served as a great source of entertainment on idle afternoons. He is also credited to be the person who introduced the habit of reading comics in Bengali culture. Debnath’s works are now being translated into English to reach a wider audience and are, expectedly, finding quite a few takers.
Born and brought up to a family of goldsmiths in Shibpur (Howrah, West Bengal) in the late 1920s, Narayan Debnath took a fascination to illustrating and cartooning from a very early age when he designed patterns for gold jewelry. His father, thankfully, saw his knack of making excellent illustrations while he was still a young boy. To further hone his illustrating skills, he prompted a young Debnath to join the Indian Art College in Moulali, Kolkata after his schooling. It was during this period that Debnath did his first professional work: making illustrations for local film posters. “I used to draw the titles of many a film in my own creative ways. After that I also got the job to draw advertisements which used to appear during the interval time of movies,” reminisces Debnath.
With time his works got noticed and he got the job as an illustrator in Deb Sahitya Kutir - a leading publishing house in Kolkata in the late 1940s. Here, he went on to draw many an illustration for children’s books, like Bane Jangale and Bagh Bhalukker Deshe or the Tarzan series in Shuktara, a children’s magazine. However, it was comics that he was destined to create for life. In the early 1950s, the editors at Shuktara asked him to draw a regular comic strip for them. Though Debnath was initially taken aback, as he had no prior experience of drawing comic strips, he took up the challenge with vigor. The rest, as they say, is history.
This was how the now famed comic characters of Handa Bhonda, Nonte Phonte and Batul the Great were born. First to come was Handa Bhoda which was an instant hit. The series features the adventures of two goofy friends, Handa and Bhonda – the former is extremely impish and always gets the latter in trouble. Their comical misadventures connected to the readers and Handa Bhonda still remains immensely popular. After its super success, Debnath was requested to create more such comics and thus came the emergence of Nonte Phonte – a series focused on two friends, quite in the lines of Handa Bhonda, who also do social service – and Batu the Great. “It was great fun drawing them; I used to take inspiration from people around me, especially when I used to visit the marketplace. It was a sea of unique and funny characters and situations, and my comics have a blend of all those in many ways” says Debnath smilingly.
Though he went on to create a few other comic series like detective mystery Kaushik Roy, Shukti-Mukti, Bahadur-Beral, and the likes, none quite enjoyed the success of Honda Bhonda, Batul and Nonte Phonte. By his own admission, his favourite remains Batul the Great which he really relishes drawing. “It was in 1965 that Batul was created. He is a huge boy with an overlarge chest and arms, and very thin legs. He was in the mold of a superhero which I exploited as the India-Pakistan war happened in 1971. I made him fight on our side and made him throw tanks and boulders at the enemy, thus helping us achieve victory,” chuckles Debnath.
However, Debnath got so involved in creating comics that the illustrator in him slowly faded away, a fact he rues but can’t do much about either as he simply doesn’t have enough time for them at this stage.
His comics, however, got so popular that television channels made an animated series on a few of them, something which Debnath doesn’t quite approve of. And neither is he a fan of today’s new-age comics. “Today’s comics have lost the innocence that was once associated with them. There is too much violence which creates a negative impact on children. Comics are to entertain and to laugh about,” says Debnath with a tinge of annoyance.
|Myself with Narayan Debnath at his ancestral home in Howrah, Kolkata|
Debnath got a further boost in his popularity when a book titled Narayan Debnath: Comics Samagraha (By Lalmati Publications), consisting of all his famous works, including some unpublished ones, was launched at the Kolkata Book Fair in 2011. What’s more was that the Executive Board of the Sahitya Akademi chose Debnath's Comics Samagra for its Bal Sahitya Puraskar for 2013. It came in quite late in his life, but the acknowledgment was well-deserved indeed.
The book, incidentally, has been created by a local fan Shantanu Ghosh, a manager in a Pharma company who has been collecting all his strips with pains for more than a decade. “I was the greatest Narayan Debnath fan and collected all his works from a very young age. By the 7th standard, I had collected about 60-70 pages and by 2008 had made around 1000 pages. I had great difficulties in collecting them all; I even cut out strips when I used to get my tiffin break in the office. I approached many publications but got rejected. Finally, Lalmati accepted. The response to it was phenomenal and it continues to sell extremely well,” says Shantanu excitedly.
At 92, Narayan Debnath certainly is not getting any younger. Troubles with arthritis and other myriad ailments have weakened him considerably and he can barely walk and talk with comfort. However, the passion for creating new ideas in his comics is still thriving. His wife, unfortunately, passed away a few years back and all he has with him now are his three grandchildren and his work. “I will never get tired of this. I can’t think of giving this up. What else shall I do then? This is the only thing that keeps me going. This is who I am,” says he.
Narayan Debnath’s comics are still thoroughly enjoyed by scores of children across Bengal. All of his popular comic strips, in fact, are also published as separate comic books. There is a certain innocence, simplicity, and charm in his stories that connect to his readers, something you will very rarely find in comics these days. One sincerely hopes that in this computer age of video games and digital comics, this ‘comic’ legend from Bengal would continue standing tall and keep creating his magic that would enthrall readers for generations to come.